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Were your ancestors among the millions who claimed
federal lands under the Homestead
Act of 1862?
We’re coming up on the 150th anniversary of this groundbreaking (pun intended) legislation
that accelerated the country’s westward expansion. Look for opportunities to learn
more about your homesteading ancestors.
President Lincoln signed the Homestead Act into law on May 20, 1862. Beginning Jan.
1, 1863, a homesteader could receive up to 160 acres of public
domain land by applying for a claim (which required a filing fee), improving the
land, living on it for five years, and then filing for a patent.
Anyone who was 21 or older or the head of a family—women, immigrants and freed slaves
included—who’d never taken up arms against the US government could file an application
to claim land.
The first person to claim land under the act was Union Army scout Daniel
Freeman on Jan. 1, 1863. The story is he’d met some officials of the local land
office at a New Year’s Eve party and convinced them to open the office shortly after
midnight so he could file his claim before reporting for duty.
Homesteading ended in 1976 in most of the United States and 1986 in Alaska. The last
claimant under the act applied for 80 acres on Alaska’s Stony River and received his
deed until 1988.
Only about 40 percent of those who ever filed completed the application process and
received land titles. More than 2 million homesteads were granted, according
to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Between 1862 and 1934, 10 percent of land
in the United States was privatized under the act.
Use these links to research your ancestor’s homesteading experience:
General Land Office
The BLM’s General Land Office (GLO) was charged with overseeing the homestead application
process. It’s free to search for and view more than 5 million federal land patents
issued since 1820. (If your ancestor applied for a homestead but never received title
to his or her land, there won’t be a record here.) You’ll also find a reference center
with a land records glossary, FAQ and more.
This free FamilyTreeMagazine.com article has tips for using the GLO online records
Fold3 is digitizing the National Archives‘ homestead
records for Nebraska. You can search the collection, which is 39 percent complete,
for free. The files, from the Records
of the Bureau of Land Management, consist of final certificates, applications
with land descriptions, affidavits showing proof of citizenship and more. And here’s
a video about the homestead records digitization project.
National Monument of America
This national monument near Beatrice, Neb., explains the Homestead Act and its impact
on the United States. Click the History and Culture link to learn more about the act,
see its text, view maps, “meet” well-known homesteaders and more.
Commemorating 150 Years of The Homestead Act
This BLM site has a Homestead Act timeline; videos about historic homesteads, building
a frontier home and more; and a Q&A.
Archives: Ingalls Homestead Records
This article from the National Archives’ Prologue magazine
(Winter 2003 issue) discusses my favorite homesteaders—the Ingallses and Wilders of Little
House on the Prairie fame—and shows portions of the families’ homestead records.
Family Tree Magazine resources to help you
research your ancestors’ land records (whether federal records such as land entry
case files or local records such as deeds) include:
Strategies: Using Land Records, a Family
Tree Magazine article digital download from ShopFamilyTree.com
Records Research Value Pack, a discounted package deal in ShopFamilyTree.com
that includes the above Using Land Records article, our Land Records 101 Independent
Study Course and two video classes on platting your ancestors’ property.
Records 101: Using Deeds, Plats, Patents and More, an instructor-led Family
Tree University course that shows you how to do genealogy research in all types of